Rosh Hashana sermon by Rabbi Allison H Conyer

Climbing the mountain


Riots over youtube video insulting Islam * Assassination of the US Ambassador in Lybia * First Egyptian Elections * The Palestinians appy to the UN for Statehood * UN reports that more asylum seekers coming to Australia are legitimate * The release of Gilad Shalit * 5 Jews win Nobel prizes * London Olympics * The Queen’s diamond Jubilee


Increased school fees * globalization * global warming * Medicare * education * tzedakah * taxes * family benefit schemes * elections * cancer * suicide * depression * dementia * AIDS * drugs * Naaroo *


Australian Idol * Survivor * Extreme Makeover * The X Factor * Madagascar 3 * i phone 5 * Facebook * Twitter * Linkedin * unemployment * retrenchment * financial concerns * doctor’s appointments * grandchildren * aging parents * aging bodies * childcare * anorexia * bulimia * obesity* work commitments * deadlines * divorce  * death


*Sport * dance lessons * music lessons * homework * family time* taking out the garbage * Religious school * catching up with friends * resolving conflicts * mobile phones * email * the internet* more work commitments * shul * marital stress * loneliness * driving the kids somewhere - everywhere * cooking dinner * more appointments * doing the laundry* visiting a parent, a sibling, a friend in hospital * cleaning the house * Shabbat at home * packing school lunches * more deadlines * what did I forget …


“Uru y’shei’nim mi’shnat’chem…Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep.  V’hakitzu nirdamim mi’tar’dei’mat’chem…Wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep…” urged the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in his famous work, Hilchot Teshuvah (3:4).

So many of us go through our days with a constant, almost deafening noise – so much to think about – what’s happening in the world, in Australia, pressures from our home life, too many responsibilities, things to remember, places to be, people to contact.  Many of us are concerned with current affairs, the environment, the State of Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism in Australia and around the world.  We worry about how world events, political decisions, and general world outlook will affect our children and grandchildren.

We want to help, yet we feel powerless.  We try to do it all.  We buy machines to help us save time, yet we are busier than ever.  We try to be there and support our children, our partners, our parents, our grandchildren, our friends, our schools, our workplaces, our synagogue, our community groups, yet we don’t have enough time for our children, our partners, our parents, our grandchildren, our friends, our schools, our workplaces, our synagogue, our community groups. So little time, so much to do. Strike that. Reverse it!

The noise of these pressures and concerns are so constant, we simply go about our lives with this background static underlying all we do.  Many of us don’t even have time to stop and notice that this is what we have been doing all year long.

My husband would not let me out the door the other day until I looked at the flowers that were apparently in bloom for over a week.  Forget the idea to stop and smell the roses, I’ll settle for just stop and notice the roses, or whatever the flowers are called!

We have been in a trance-like state, going through the motions of what needs to get done, what we must worry about, and what we must know to keep in touch with the world (if we even have time to do that).

Today, this Rosh Hashanah, as we welcome the New Year of 5773, I invite each of us to stop and listen to the sounds of silence.

Hear the sound of the shofar designed to jolt us from our perfunctory existence and wake us up.

Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish Chaplain at Yale University, once wrote:  “Waking up is a common act, like breathing or eating, something which you do everyday, usually without reflection.  It is also a turning point.  If sleep is properly likened to death, then awakening is like resurrection; if sleep entails losing the world, then awakening means regaining it…”  He continues to point out that although the Rabbinic Law code, the Shulchan Aruch says: “ ‘One should rise courageously like a lion in the morning for the service of the Creator,’ we resist waking up, yearn for a trance-like numbness, the uninterrupted flow of imagination, choose to stumble through our days as if in a dream.  For we are inertial beings given to drifting with the tide, heedless of our destination...

“It takes an outside force to stun us out of our programmed fears, push us kicking out of the ‘four cubits’ of dull daily idolatry where, like sleepers, we have eyes but do not see, ears, but do not hear, noses, but do not smell, hands, but do not feel.”

Rabbi Ponet challenges us to look at our ever-growing, over-programmed, busy lives as “dull, daily idolatry,” where we, seemingly educated, cultured, and civilized people are unable or unwilling to wake up, to see, hear, smell, and feel all that is around us.  We’re too busy doing that we miss out on sensing.

Our “dull, daily idolatry” is the unabashed prioritization of DOING over BEING.  It is the worship, knowingly or unknowingly, of taking care of what needs to be done – the shopping, the shlepping, the laundry, the appointments, AS WELL AS what does not need to be done - the extra work load we agree to take on for whatever reason, the push to make others happy at the expense of our own sanity – it is the worship of the DOING that is deadening our senses.

Many of us have been DOING for so long, we don’t know how to stop.  We take on more and more commitments because we think we can, because we want to please our partners, our children, our parents, our workmates.  Somehow, we have lost our way, thinking that DOING equals happiness or success.  The more we do, the more we’ll have, and the more fulfilled we will be.

Each year, the machzor guides us to look honestly at our lives, our choices, our actions. We are guided through a process of tshuvah, of repentance, of apologizing to those we have wronged, of changing our ways, reforming our behaviour, and returning to the righteous path, living as G-d intended, being guided by the mitzvot, Jewish traditions and values.

This Rosh Hashanah, I am here to speak to you about tshuvah in a different sense - Tshuvah as a way of returning balance to our lives.

We read in Torah this morning:“V’haelohim nisah et Avraham...” And God put Abraham to the test. (Gen 22:1). What was this test? Many people think G-d was testing Abraham’s faith – would he or would he not obey G-d no matter how great or challenging the command. Abraham is known in our tradition as “Ish Emunah” the man of faith and many take this to mean that he had blind faith. I don’t know about you, or what happens here in Melbourne, but in the various countries and cities in which I’ve lived and been part of the Jewish community, I’ve known very few Jews to take “commands” without a good argument, especially any request that involves taking something they value away from them.

To me, this parsha is a wake up call asking us what we are willing to sacrifice. Every day, we wake up and are faced with this question. What are we willing to sacrifice? Everyday, we, like Abraham, walk up a mountain of responsibility with a “to do list” that is impractical. Most of us believe that our responsibilities are for a greater purpose. If we don’t get this done, we’ll let the team down, we won’t be doing our job properly, the house will be a disaster, we won’t be a good mother, father, grandparent, friend, wife, husband, child. If we don’t fulfil our responsibilities, what will that say about us? But in order to fulfil our responsibilities, we must make sacrifices, as we are only human and can only do so much.

In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban – which means to draw near rather than to give something up. It’s based on the idea that we must offer something for the purpose of bringing us closer to G-d. Thus when we make sacrifices in our lives today, we must ask ourselves are we merely giving something up, or rather offering something for a greater purpose.

G-d put Abraham to the test. Almost without thinking, he rose early in the morning, went through his routines, took his servants and his son, his favourite one, the one whom he loved, Isaac, and set out to fulfil his responsibility to G-d and sacrifice his son.

Only once he made it to the top of the mountain, once he left his servants somewhere on the mountain, only once his son was bound in front of him and he had the sacrificial knife in his hand did he pause and stop to reflect.

Many of us wake up each morning, almost without thinking, and go through our routines to get us out the door. We take what and who we need with us and begin our climb. Days, weeks and months go on like this before we find ourselves in a frenzy or a trance-like state in our “dull daily idolatry” before we realise that we are at the top of the mountain with our children, our loved ones, those whom we value most, and see that in our choices, they have been prepared for sacrifice.

Today, as we listen to the calls of the shofar, we are reminded of the ram in the thicket, who G-d sent to Abraham at the last moment to offer as the sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. G-d recognised that Abraham EVENTUALLY paused and reflected. That he did not go through with the sacrifice of his son blindly. He stopped and reflected. The Torah tells us that G-d said to Abraham on the mountain “Now I know that you fear G-d, since you did not withhold your son, your favoured one from Me (Gen. 2212).” G-d recognised that Abraham acted out of fear and needed time to reflect.

Today, as we listen to the calls of the Shofar, we find ourselves on the top of the mountain with time to pause and reflect. Many of us fear we will let others down or let ourselves down if we don’t do everything for everyone all the time. We schlepp from one after school activity to the next. We take on one more project at work, or put in just one more hour, or day, or week to ensure our professional standards are met. We ignore signs in our bodies or feelings because we just can’t be bothered or we just have that one more thing to do first, or we just have to be there for our children or grandchildren. In the process of walking up our mountain of doing everything for everyone all the time, we stop and feel guilty for what we haven’t done. For those we have sacrificed along the way. We can justify it how we wish. We have responsibilities. We’re doing work for a greater purpose. But still, we stand here today recognising that because of our choices, we have made sacrifices.

And yet, today, G-d comes to us on the mountain recognising what we have done and reminds us that it is not too late. Our children, our loved ones, those who we value most are still here. As we begin to descend the mountain over the next 10 days, we CAN make different choices – perhaps not out of fear, perhaps not because we’re in a rut, but because we are awake. Because each day we begin anew and make choices and sacrifices. Today we pause and reflect on those choices and sacrifices and remind ourselves that it is not too late.

We need to find the balance between what we do for others, what we do for ourselves, what we do for our community, and what we do for God.  Many of us are shaking our heads now.  This sounds right.  This feels right.  But do we have the strength to make it happen?  Do we have the strength to change our patterns?  Do we have the strength to really make t’shuvah and return a sense of balance to our lives?

The scales are against us.  Life is too demanding and fast in our modern world.  Take Take Take.  Give Give Give.  This year, I challenge all of us to tip the scales in our favour, to listen to the sound of the shofar and find time to simply STOP… and listen to the sound of silence…



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